What a rollercoaster of a ride the small but effective Guildford Shakespeare Company must have had with their King Lear. The elation of securing national treasure Brian Blessed in the title role must have felt as though all of their Christmases had come at once. A great reception to the opening seemed to have suggested their gamble had paid off and with an extension to the run confirmed they seemed destined for a blinding success. As if Lear weren’t a big enough tragedy already disaster struck shortly after as Blessed took a wobble and a fall and succumbed to a reoccurring heart condition forcing him to bow out of the high profile performance after just a week of performances. Disaster!
Gallantly the production has carried on regardless however and justifiably so as this is worth watching and in its Church setting is as enjoyable and touching as any good Lear should be. There is some great imagery created with the clever use of the space and with lighting, always watched over by a stained glass backdrop and religious statues that observe the action with a disdainful superiority.
Taking the unenviable task of filling Blessed’s shoes is Terence Wilton, a stalwart of the RSC he certainly has the right credentials to make a stab at the mighty role. How much of his Lear is his own and how much he has had to fit into the already rehearsed and performed production is unclear. Either way he gives us a Lear that hits all of the right marks at the right points in his smartly pronounced performance. The real strength of Wilton’s performance is his skilled way in which he shows the journey from King to mad man to just plain old man. There is a believability to his decline that is often absent even the greatest of Lear’s. Despite this Wilton struggles later in the play to genuinely move when he awakens to find Cordelia and there is something sadly lacking in the final scene where he mourns for his dead daughter before succumbing himself. That being said for a man that has been parachuted in to save the day this is a remarkably assured performance that will only improve as the run progresses.
Elsewhere there are ups and downs in the company. Noel White makes a handsome job of Kent, something that is not always achieved. There is a contriteness in Kent and his self-effacing conduct that can become quite irritating. White never falls into this trap and provides a level of humour and likability whilst always remaining sensitive and respectful to his King. James Sobol Kelly is a younger than average Gloucester but conducts himself with grace and dignity as becomes the character.
Ben Ashton makes a good attempt at a wickedly charming and dangerous Edmund. Emily Tucker shares the roles of both Cordelia and The Fool. As Cordelia she refrains from displaying too much weakness whilst still holding on to the vulnerability that is needed. As the bizarrely dressed Fool she fits less easily however in a confused and weirdly androgynous portrayal. The other two sisters lack any kind of sexuality or vigour. Brian Blessed’s own daughter Rosalind Blessed gives a harsh voiced Goneril that sets the ear drums on edge like finger nails being dragged across a blackboard. Sarah Gobran is a remarkably plain and somewhat dull Regan.
I can’t help but pine the loss of seeing Blessed’s Lear, I imagine however that it would be difficult separating the man from the role in this case. Perhaps the lack of that oh so familiar voice is a blessing and lets us focus on Lear and not the man playing him. That aside this remains a solid and enjoyable production that suits its surroundings surprisingly well.